By our own hands: society’s fraught and shameful relationship with masturbation
By: Michelle Dicinoski
I had my hair permed for the first and last time when I was 10 years old.
An hour or two after we returned home from the hairdressers, my mother caught me masturbating in the lounge room. In 1986, it was acceptable for 10-year-olds to get perms, but not to masturbate in the lounge room, so when she caught sight of me, my mother let out a kind of shocked wail.
“Oh, Shelly,” she said. “And you looked so pretty with your new hair.”
I realised in that instant that I could either be pretty or I could be sexual, but I couldn’t be both. And I should never, ever masturbate in the lounge room.
Masturbation’s terrible reputation was enshrined in the early 18th century, in an anonymous pamphlet with the spectacular title Onania; or the Heinous Sin of Self Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences, in both Sexes Considered, with Spiritual and Physical Advice to Those who have Already Injured Themselves by this Abominable Practice. The pamphlet describes masturbation as “that unnatural Practice by which persons of either sex may defile their own bodies, without the Assistance of others”.
Baby-making sex got the thumbs up but masturbation was wrong because it was a person’s attempt to “imitate and procure for themselves that Sensation, which God has ordered to attend the Carnal Commerce of the two sexes for the Continuation of our Species”. In short, the author advised readers to get their hands off it, and, if they wanted to keep their hands off it, to purchase the author’s masturbation-curing medicine, or “Strengthening Tincture” – available for 12 shillings, direct from your bookseller.
Thomas W. Laqueur, the author of Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, describes the publication of Onania as a key moment in the shaping of cultural attitudes to masturbation. As Laqueur points out, masturbation was threatening because it was secret and prone to excess, and “had no bounds in reality, because it was the creature of the imagination”. This made masturbation difficult to control, and, therefore, dangerous.
When my friend Ellie* was about eight years old, she and her brother were lounging around in bed with their parents one Sunday morning. All was well until their father suddenly grabbed Ellie’s hand, clenched her fingers together, and sniffed them. He instantly pushed her off him, bellowing that she was disgusting and dirty and needed to wash her hands. She didn’t know what she had done wrong, but she soon put it all together.
A decade later, when Ellie was 18, her boyfriend was charged with 230 cases of public masturbation. She was horrified and confused. Why would he feel the need to do that when he could sleep with her? Ellie ended the relationship and tried in future relationships to be extremely sexually
available to her boyfriends. That way, she figured, they wouldn’t need to masturbate. Years later, she found herself obsessed with her fiancé’s masturbation. She questioned him constantly about whether he had masturbated that day, that week.
Eventually their sexual relationship suffered. Now married, they are working on changing their approach to masturbation, although Ellie says her fear has “damaged” her husband’s relationship with it – and with her. “He doesn’t trust me,” she says, “doesn’t quite trust that I will not be angry at him.”
Ellie now thinks she was wrong in her approach to her partner’s masturbation. “I never really understood that it was about being with yourself.”
Now in her 30s, Ellie is seeing, for the first time, that masturbation is not really about other people. “Intimacy with your own body,” she tells me, “is a kindness and necessity.”
In 1760, the Swiss physician Tissot wrote an extensive treatise on onanism (as masturbation was also known). Tissot thought sperm was an “essential oil” that, when spilled, weakened all the other bodily fluids. This link between masturbation and physical and moral weakness persisted. In the following century, the American health food reformer Sylvester Graham argued that the committed masturbator would, in time, become “a confirmed and degraded idiot” with glassy eyes, a vacant stare, pus-filled sores and, worst of all, “a ruined soul”!
Something so powerful and dangerous needed a range of treatments, and by the late 1800s, masturbation wasn’t being treated solely with potions and books, but also with technologies such as mitts to cover curious hands, and hobbles to stop girls spreading their legs. Dr John Kellogg, the inventor of cornflakes, was opposed to masturbation and suggested remedies including electric shocks, genital cages, stitching the foreskin shut and applying acid to the clitoris – or surgically removing it.
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that masturbation began to be seen as a regular part of sexual development. Despite this, negative ideas about masturbation continued, persisting even to the present day.
My friend Annika tells me that she sometimes masturbates as a guilty pleasure when she is meant to be working from home.
“It’s a form of procrastination,” she tells me. “I get urgently desirous.”
She uses a Hitachi Magic Wand, a famed vibrator that has been around since the late 1960s and is said to take some women from zero to orgasm in 25 seconds. As long as I’ve known her, Annika’s been a woman who knows how to get things done effectively and fast.
I understand perfectly when Annika says that having a quick wank in the middle of a work-from-home day can help her return to her desk with more focus. I have felt exactly the same thing: an inability to concentrate; a kind of mental and physical restlessness that needs an outlet. One or more orgasms later, I can return to writing or editing with a renewed focus.
While Victorian literature cautioned that masturbation would lead to idiocy, a lack of focus and physical weakness, masturbation in the early 21st century is most commonly seen as a harmless stress-reliever. Sex manuals and television doctors advise us that it is a form of self-love; a way to discover your body and your sexual preferences.
Masturbation scholar Laqueur points out that over the years, masturbation has gone from being culturally invisible, to being seen as a sign of moral decay, then as a developmental stage, and now as a sign of a sexually free and healthy individual – except, of course, if it becomes an obsession.
The ‘NoFap’ movement seems at once a very 21st century phenomenon, and a surprisingly 19th century one. A kind of online support group for chronic masturbators and internet porn addicts, its users aim to quit masturbation (also known as ‘fapping’) and porn consumption. The movement was sparked by a comment thread on Reddit, which cited research suggesting that men’s testosterone levels increase by 45 per cent if they don’t masturbate for seven days. The movement was also inspired by a TED talk by Gary Wilson, which discusses how internet pornography can produce changes in the brain, so that as time passes, increasingly explicit pornography is needed to achieve the same level of arousal. The NoFap community developed rapidly, building an online space for ‘fapstronauts’ (committed non-fappers) to discuss their ‘fapstinence’. The community is predominantly male, although there are a few female members, who for some reason are given the alternative title of ‘femstronauts’.
In the forums, users talk about their physical improvement, and discuss how long it’s been since they last fapped. A typical post will say something similar to, “After 30 days of NoFap, I have more confidence, my mind is clearer, and I am using all the time I’ve saved to complete some extra classes at the local university.”
One user says:
These past two weeks have been the best two weeks of my life: I feel like I’ve come out as a completely new person, I have had friends compliment me on how much healthier I look and how impressed they are with the weight I’ve lost lately; I’m talking to a girl who I think is amazing but instead of over-thinking things like I usually do, I just feel great around her; everything is so simple. I’m finally not snapping at my friends and I’m starting to pick up slack again in college. It has been a struggle trying to get over this addiction for so long but the benefits are amazing. I feel unstoppable and I finally feel like I deserve to be happy. I was thinking this as I came home on a bus and I couldn’t help but let tears out, I just felt amazing.
As might be clear from the language used by its proponents, NoFap is specifically promoted as a means for self-improvement. The nofap.org website invites visitors to “Join the movement for self-improvement… NoFap hosts challenges where participants abstain from porn and masturbation. Seize control of your sexuality and turn it into superpowers.”
The NoFap movement overlaps with the Quantified Self (QS) movement, in which users track bodily functions – exercise, heart rate, caloric intake and so on – using wearable devices.
Dr Melissa Gregg, a former lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Sydney, says that both movements “are about achieving a superior version of oneself, a kind of moral perfectionism that has long been part of our culture.” Gregg says users strive “to achieve greatness through adopting specific practices and regulatory discipline”.
If only we do the right things, we can be better people. We can be superpowered.
While researching this article, I invited friends to tell me stories anonymously, via my website, about their relationship with masturbation. One woman sent a message saying that for years she had trouble talking about her sexual needs with her partner. Unsatisfied, she masturbated often, to the extent that she wasn’t interested in sex. “It put an enormous strain on our relationship and he felt completely rejected and unloved,” she wrote. “He didn’t know I was always masturbating, he just thought I wasn’t interested in it.”
When she observed the relationship suffering, she vowed to change the situation. “Right when we hit our lowest ebb, I vowed to give up bean-flicking for three months,” she confided. “I got over my reticence to tell him exactly what I wanted.”
This new candour meant that her husband was able to get her off like never before. Within a month, they were fucking daily and the relationship was repaired.
This story, like so many stories about masturbation, demonstrates our complex relationship with sex and sexual acts. For many of us, masturbation is beneficial because it teaches us what turns us on. For some women, expressing what feels good and what doesn’t is a fraught process. Taught from a young age to be nice, non-critical and ‘not slutty’, we often don’t know how to ask our partners for what we need.
Another recurrent theme in the stories I heard was that masturbation was perfectly fine and healthy and natural… for those who aren’t in relationships. Krissy Kneen, author of the memoir Affection, is a married woman and a frequent masturbator. She says, “It is so often frowned on to masturbate while you are in a relationship. This puts so much pressure on a partner.” The assumption is that you should have no need to masturbate if you’re having your sexual needs met through a relationship.
To me, this assumption also fails to recognise that much of the pleasure of masturbation comes from its solitariness. Masturbation is not an inferior version of partnered sex, rather it’s an entirely different act – one is about my relationship with myself, the other about my relationship with my partner. In a world in which the benefits of complete openness are so often touted, masturbation is, for me, an act that can be entirely solitary and decidedly not about my partner. It’s not an act that I hide from her, but it’s not about her, either. Often it’s not about anyone. It’s purely about pleasure; a time when I engage in an act solely for myself, with no outcome for anyone but me.
Associate Professor Elizabeth Stephens, director of research at Southern Cross University in Lismore, has written extensively about the history of sexuality. I asked for her thoughts on NoFappers and ‘ProFappers’ (like me), and why our views are so far apart. Stephens says our views are actually similar in some ways.
For 19th century abstinence proponents such as Kellogg, Stephens says, masturbation and sexuality were connected to the idea of fitness. “They are the first fitness experts,” she says. “For them, fitness was about self-cultivation. The fapstinence people are practising a form of self-care, they feel they virilify themselves by being abstinent.”
By not masturbating, the NoFappers feel in control of their sexuality, and my own approach is not so different, Stephens says. “Masturbation can also be seen as a form of self-care. So as you can see, there is a weird continuity between masturbation as self-care and abstinence as self-care.”
This perspective helped me realise that by being pro-masturbation, I was perhaps unnecessarily critical of the NoFappers at first. After all, who am I to say what is right for them? What I would hope is that, regardless of the choices we make, we can avoid shame. Whether we are self-confessed wankers or not, I’d love to see discussions around masturbation that can keep stigma out of the picture.
Shame should be reserved for far more serious matters. As my friend Annika said when I confided in her about being caught by my mum in the lounge room: “That’s an excellent story, and it took real guts to tell it. It takes a lot of courage to admit you had a perm.”
Michelle Dicinoski is the author of Ghost Wife: A Memoir of Love and Defiance and the poetry collection Electricity for Beginners. Follow her on Twitter: @ghost_wife.
*Some names in this article have been changed for privacy reasons.
This article was first published in Archer Magazine #3.
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